I think one major issue with Native American (NA from here out) concepts is the frequent notion of one large Native American Pantheon of gods / goddesses and spirit beings. That seems to be the aspect I see most often used as a justification of borrowing terms like Totem and Medicine Person especially, I think the other is the notion of the romantic perspective of the noble savage and their connection to the land and its spirit creatures. That romantic point of view leading people to borrow terms and concepts as they try to reach that rose colored perception of things and the trappings associated with it.
Totemism was at one time a rapidly growing aspect of neo-pagan practices and found to be in every book you could find it seemed. The classic how to find ones totem, how to go on a journey, usually guided, to encounter their totem. It seemed one had to have a "Totem" or else they were not a true ________(Fill in the blank). It is especially bad within the "Shaman" or "Shamanic" pathways as that term has become an umbrella term for the most part. What makes it even worse I suppose is the most exploited nations being the Sioux (The Lakota, The Dakota, The Uglala and I think its the Teton) for the plains nations and the Cherokee (Tsalagi) for the Eastern Woodland nations. Their clan structure and mythological beings and functions, ie White Buffalo Calf Woman Comes Dancing for instance. Heck even things such as Sweat Lodges, Vision Quests, Pip Holders, Keepers of Relics, etc have been borrowed.
I use the term Totem mostly because people wouldn't understand if I used Charge, Rampart, Herald or other animal based identification things used in Europe. Even then the usage and meaning of "Totem" had become more than the notion or idea of most NA usage. Its become conflated with Power Animal, Spirit Animal, Spirit Guide, Shadow or Contrary Totem and a dozen other terms I can't recall of the top of my head, Yet try and educate people and your asking for everything from being cursed out to they can't or don't own it so its free to anyone.
For me trying to relate and understand I wrote this out. It conveys all my thoughts and perspective on proper usage and such of the term. Is it correct? I think so but it is also always subject to refinement or clarrification.
All that follows is my opinion only so other's may differ greatly from that.
I think what many are discovering is the confusion that has developed about the notion of Power Animal, Spirit Animal, Spirit Animal Guide, Totem Animal and Guides in general. The influx of new age notions and a certain amount of revamping of pagan notions and ideals have changed the face of these items. That coupled to a certain amount of liberty with the definitions as they have been lifted from other systems of beliefs and practices.
The Totem Animal is perhaps the most corrupted to my point of view. The totem is an animal that was associated with a clan, tribe, family, etc. It was seldom associated to an individual except to the extent that a member of the group claimed it as their ______ Totem. This is most well known when one looks to the Totem Poles of the Northwestern US. Those are Totems that are associated with the tribe (group) not individuals. I will admit I am divided in reference to whether one can have a totem from their respective parent’s lines, I.e. different totem from mother's side and father's side. In this perspective it might be possible to possess two totems.
There is an individual totem on occasion though they are far more difficult to discover. Usually the individual who has done or underwent a quest and vision to discover them discovers these types. They then become the markers for that person and are a guide upon their pathwalk and serve as both totem, spirit guide and power animal all rolled into one. While possible it is my experience that not all will discover this type of totem creature, even if they do quest for it.
Some totems become clan or Spiritual Clan emblems and houses. For instance, Once I was in a trance state and had a woman in white come up to me and led me into a ring of dancing spirits in animal form. As she brought me to the ring she introduced me to the dancers as "Wolf" and introduced the dancers as simply "Dancers". Yet as I danced the dance I changed from human form to that of a wolf and watched as the other dancers did so as well, yet they were of other forms. Later I joined a second dance that was composed of people that changed to Wolf form only and we danced again. Of course there is a lot more to it than just what I have spoken of but that is for me only.
Totems are also assigned to clan’s based upon the Medicine Wheel. Each quarter of the wheel marked as being under the influence of a specific creature. For instance under one variant I am of the Turtle Clan as that is the house in charge of the quadrant that covers the month of March. Yet on that same wheel I have a totem animal of the Puma, as it is the totem that governs that month. Yet these clan totems may very from nation to nation or from continent to continent. One may also find totems in the form of clan or family heralds in the shape of family crests or banners.
Individuals were (are) associated with Power Animals. The Power Animal is one that guide's and influences the individual but is also a source of power and inspiration for the individual. For instance one of my Power Animals is the Heron. All I have to do is see it and my mind takes off, yet not each sighting is a lesson though the bird inspires me never the less in how I view the world and see myself in it.
The Power Animal may also show as what is called a Shadow Totem or Shadow Power Animal. That is a creature that instills a great fear or hesitation in us. It is some facet of its power that undermines us until we face that fear and learn to overcome or accept it. It's like Wolf is associated with family and group yet inversely it is also associated with individualism and self-purpose. Both that are seen as a detriment to the family / group when they take precedent in action and purpose.
The Spirit Animal Guide is usually a form that is taken that we initially find a connection to. Many times the initial contact the front door to discovering the more terrifying and darker forms that will follow. Some will hold a singular form the whole time we know them, other's will change and evolve or simply one will leave and another come. Many times the Spirit Animal Guide leads us and encourages us within dreamtime or journeywork.
At times the Spirit version may hold the properties of the physical version though that is not always true. At times one may find that to discover the spirit realm one must become the Spirit Animal Guide. By becoming the guide we see it's lessons or come to understand the area we are traversing. Yes, sometimes it also allows us to move unseen or survive in the area we are being taken to.
We also have Divine Spirit Guides I believe. For me mine are Deer (Artemis) and Cat (Bast). My parents have told me cats have come to me since I first crawled from my crib while Deer appear in dreams and walk up to me at times. Granted the Stag is the sign of Artemis and those appear as well but the deer is an unobtrusive messenger that appears in the real world of man. Guides or a messenger that serve to remind us or connect us to the divine presence in our lives if that is a component of our pathwalk.
I do believe there are spirit animals that are life long guides and influences. For me that animal has always been the Dragon. I have seen them in everything since I can recall and know when they show up something is about to happen. In many instances I have carried on conversations with various dragons in dreamtime.
I think Spirit animals may also be seen as primary and secondary. The primary is always with us but the secondary is of such importance that they are also present at all times but not quite as vocal. For me the secondary has always been the Snow Leopard, yet it is also the primary for my wife. I'll admit I have wondered if hers was so large in my life as it was guiding me to her.
In the physical sense the assumption of its shape is a form of Shape Shifting. In this instance it's the process of connecting to our Power Animal or Spirit Guide by trying to imitate it's actions and movements. For instance for me with Heron it's a process of stepping into the water and moving and trying to act like Heron in the way it interacts with its environment. Yet not just trying to act like it but to actually feel like it and understand it.
Where I may differ is that I also believe we receive guides from all the kingdoms of life. Certain trees and plants are used as guides within the kingdom of the Green People; certain minerals or stones may call to us as representatives of the stone people. For me the winged people have sent Heron and Dragonfly. The four legs have used Deer and Cats as guides. The two legs have used many guides. Even the water people have sent guides in the form of fish (Carp) and newts and salamanders.
The thing about guides is that I believe that a guide may only be with us as long as necessary to teach its lesson. SO we may have guides that are present for a day, a month, a year however long it takes to teach us the lesson it has been sent to convey to us. As such it also implies that a guide may come and go forever, a guide may appear then disappear from your lives multiple times. It implies that one may have any number of guides present at and given moment of time to teach you Spirit’s lesson.
As I stated at the top these are my beliefs and opinions so may vary greater from what other’s have to say on the subject.
Below are two articles and links from another person that some may recognize from another site. Yet I find that I agree greatly with much that she has said. As such I include them here that you may have other resources to read and discover from.
Animal totemism is a hot topic among magical folk, in particular pagans and shamans. This, of course, has spawned a growing number of books about totems which vary in quality from excellent to appalling, as books are wont to do. Many of them attempt to be an improvement on Ted Andrews’ works, which spawned the “totem dictionary with some extra stuff” trend. In addition, there are numerous websites about totems, again of varying quality. It’s laughably easy to find the information you seek.